Category Archives: Religion

The paradox of our Age

An almost palatable milky-chai aroma catches the soothing Himalayan breeze as a group of monks congregate upon a quaint cafe roof terrace with steaming white teacups. Below, a Chuba wearing woman adds a Spiritual awareness poster to the multitude of Reiki and Yoga notices already adorning its walls. The Dalai Lama’s Indian home of exile, Dharamshala, is a microcosm of the Tibetan way of life. It beats at its own pace; while the India around it searches for further acceleration.

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In 1959, the Dalai Lama completed an enduring fifteen day escape from Lhasa and arrived in India.  As one challenge folded, another unveiled itself. A global journey to support the welfare of Tibetans would expose him to the gulf between his ideologies, and the western-world. Witnessing the eternal chase to satiate endless desires that now lays bare in his adoptive home would have provided inspiration for his poem; ‘the paradox of our age’. The essence and simplicity that once embodied his Tibet is becoming harder to find in a world of growing complexity.

We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgement; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness;

In the sculpture classroom of the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, a poster reads, “If you’re a good human being, then the skills and knowledge you Himalayas (376)acquire will benefit the whole society. Otherwise it’s like giving a weapon to a child”. One student carefully ushers his paintbrush between the lines of his sketched “four harmonious friends,”  a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders on the back of a patient elephant, symbolising social and environmental harmony.

Education is not just a means to an end for the Bhutanese; it is an end in itself- to learn how to think. The ornately decorative architecture and the intricately painted murals of the country’s IMG_20131113_180757Dzongs and Chortens that are carved and shaded in the classroom, are not ostentatious items of show to portray power or yield monetary gain. Their worth is in preserving culture and tradition, and perpetuating morals.

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour. We build more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication; We have become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; Tall men but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.

On the path to Chimi Lhakang, the divine fertility temple in Bhutan’s Punakha valley, several workers begin sifting through the rice fields. The cloudless November morning sky allows the sun to radiate freely down upon them though fails to nullify their community spirit and the merry rhythm they have developed to their livelihoods. BoutsIMG_2605 of laughter echo from corners of the valley, which ebbs and flows with the motions of the farmers, while a gathering of children titter at the symbolic phalluses lining the temple route.

We may see opportunities to make rice growing faster, picking more efficient and the whole process, more profitable. Yet, from their Himalayan viewpoint, like the Tibetan monks enjoying afternoon tea, the Bhutanese prefer to embrace a life where values are multiplied, and possessions are not.

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Dousing the flames of history

A dusty heat swirls through the t-junction at the base of Golden Temple road in Amritsar. It carries with it a bready scent, airborne from a gently tandoor-oven heated breakfast roti. The rickety put-put of a rickshaw drills over echoing verses from the famous temple, as its smoky exhaust disturbs a Punjabi man’s attempt to tame his beard in the vehicle’s wing mirror.

Outside the iron-black gated entrance to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, India rolls on as normal. Inside India stands still in remembrance where a symbolic commemoration, the eternal flame, burns. It remembers the hundreds of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that perished in 1919 after the British Indian army opened fire on them in the bagh, where they had gathered in protest against oppressive British rule in India. As unsuspecting martyrs, they became the spark that lit the path to Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi carried the torch. His message of non-violence compacted by championing the united spirit of all Indian people ultimately ousted British rule.

Today’s global interdependence, technological and communicational advance makes tantalising the progress that can be forged by the power of global unity. Yet, our mark on history continues to be blotched by the divisive proclivity of humanity. We continue to see our differences as barriers, before seeing richness in our diversity. Though we may be making dramatic progress materially, our thought is yet to evolve.

In the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict flaring up again in tit-for-tat warfare, killing hundreds and solving little – we are drawn to hashtaging our allegiances; dividing ourselves and pointing our fingers. These actions only serve to exacerbate all party’s ailments. It aptly represents the middle-east as a whole; where richness in natural resource and intellect is being plundered by the region’s inability to coexist as a cohesive unit of diverse beliefs.

Even where religious beliefs are common, geography and political alignment can divide. 100 years ago, on 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot dead near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo by a Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip. The shots fired from Princip’s semi-automatic pistol on that cobbled street corner, changed global history, igniting the First World War and setting in motion the ever restive European borders. A resultant continent blighted by border conflict wars has pacified through integration of goods and people, which until recent tensions have driven its unified prosperity.

Often our apparent differences are manipulated as politicised tools; we fear being the minority. A trio of red-robed monks wander out from the quaint Tibetan Mandala Cafe, which looks out onto the plush Indian Himalayas from its cushy spot in Mcleod Ganj. Soothed by masala chai, they initiate the day’s second tour of the Tibetan struggle exhibit at the Tibet Museum. For Tibetans, Chinese occupation has driven them to self-immolation. For Russians in eastern-Ukraine it has driven them to civil war. In either case the loss of innocent lives, certainly evident with the downing of flight MH17 in the latter, merely adds to the suffering. It offers fitting symbolism of humankind’s self destruction, with the deaths of renowned HIV researchers upon that flight.

Back in the dawn commotion of Amritsar, two raggedly dressed children fight over rights to the morning warmth of the roti, under the nose of the startled Punjabi man. Fashioning his now ruffled beard, he tears the breakfast snack in two and returns a half back to each of them, who then proceed to eat in silence. For Gandhi, change was sought by teaching the British the value of Indian cooperation, and not by being marginalised by their power, or perpetuating the anger of the Jallianwala bagh massacres. In current climes they are poignant lessons if we are to begin writing our own history, as oppose to repeating it.

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Bosnia: Bridging differences

As the lagoon blue Neretva river cascades under the elevated rainbow-esque arch, a muezzin’s ezan prayer resonates from a nearby mosque; through Mostar’s cobbled Ottoman quarter and across the bank. There, in a quaint cafe, the sizzling scent of Bosnian ‘turkish coffee’ becomes airborne as a pot of boiling water hits the cup of roasted coffee beans.

Forged from the local pale tenelija stone, the Stari Most, or ‘Old Bridge’ is a poignant symbol to humanity, let alone an architecturally implausible feat.

It stood, against the expectation of its complex structure, for 427 years – only to be destroyed strategically by Bosnian Croats in 1993 as they attacked the Muslim Bosniaks on the Neretva’s eastern bank.  Both were formally allied against Serbia’s marauding troops, though a Croat thirst for Bosnian territory led to mutiny.

Human nature is to see those deemed foreign as inherently different beings. Our history reveals an innate desire to conquer, to subjugate ‘others’ and expand territories. An aversion to coalesce and instead to see geography and religion as barriers, rather than markers of cultural diversity, is a commonality of our past, and present behaviours.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a jostling for land space, where religious differences have been considered too great to tether a cooperative state, but instead has engendered a two-state solution. It is set amongst wider sectarian conflict in the Middle-east, where even variation in interpretation within a religion has led to conflict.

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In India, at the end of the lush green lawn in the shadow of Shimla’s Viceregal Lodge, stands the hollowed out statue of a dancing girl. She symbolises the cultural paradox of India’s partition, where the mother of the Indus valley civilization, Mohenjo daro, now lies in Pakistan whereas great Islamic monuments like the Taj Mahal now reside in India.

The girl represents the ‘presence of the absence,’ where a fervour for national identity, on religious grounds, has left a void, in the same way that borders can dismiss humanity’s collaborative and revering role as citizens of the world as a whole.

For Bosnians and Herzegovinians, their present is a shared vision toward developing their country. A multitude of mosques, synagogues and orthodox churches stand among the abandoned shell-shocked buildings and bullet-marked shops in its capital, Sarajevo. They may have different faiths, but that does not cloud their realisation for a universal goal as Bosnia emerges from its past.

With its destruction Mostar was divided, and the town became the poster of the war in Bosnia. Large cemeteries with tombstones dated to 1993 appear along its inner streets. In 2004, the Stari Most was rebuilt, replicating the methods used by its 16th century architect Mimar Hayruddin. With its reconstruction it has come to define the Bosnian spirit.

From the gardens of the Koski Mehmed-Pasa mosque, the darkened outline of a cross can be seen through the mountain mist behind the Stari Most. While the memory of war remains lucid, the message of Bosnia’s future is now stronger; to bridge across differences, and to develop through unification.

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Castles in the sky

With its regal gold and crimson finishes, the strong white walls of the Tiger’s Nest monastery jut majestically above the verdant Bhutanese mountainside. It sits with a somewhat precarious comfort; as if it were held in place by the web of prayer flags radiating from its base.

Whatever castles we create above to house our beliefs, and however we choose to access that belief, through diverse ritual, tradition and storytelling, what ultimately connects humanity is the universal trait of having faith altogether.

Inside the monastery, a monk kneels down before a large shrine of Guru Rinpoche, known as the ‘second Buddha,’ and effortlessly glides his velvet robed body flat across the dark wooden floor with Himalayas (685)his arms outstretched in front of him and his hands clasped firmly together. After repeating the motion three times he takes a sip of holy water from his palms and splashes the rest over his shaven head. The Guru is believed to have meditated in the caves upon which the monastery was built, after he had flown from Tibet on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon.

In the North Indian hill station, Shimla, a woman frantically circumnavigates the Jakhoo temple, dedicated to the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman. As the sun hides behind the cascading hillsides, a Himalayas (860)number of notorious scurrying monkey silhouettes aptly come into view. The woman touches every depiction of Hanuman, and as she recounts how Hanuman famously lifted a mountain to deliver a life-saving herb to a companion’s wounded brother, she asks him to lend his strength and bravery.

A Sikh man gently lays his clothing down on the white marble floor and immerses himself in the pool of nectar at Amritsar’s Golden Temple.  He methodically cleanses his face and hands with the water. Guru Arjan Dev the son of Guru Raam Das, the fourth spiritual master of the Sikhs, completed the excavation of the pool, and proclaimed that bathing Himalayas (1172)inside the pool will wash away all the sins one has committed.

On India’s North-western edge, the roar of a buoyed Indian crowd chants ‘Vande Mataram….India Zindabad’ in unison at the Wagah border ceremony, which officially closes the India and Pakistan border each day at sunset. In the oddly extravagant event, Indian border officers were pictured this year offering Eid gifts to the Pakistani Ranger wing commander during the ceremony. Here national banter appears to transcend religious differences.

Though, in our modern society where faiths mix together in an effervescing cauldron stirred by mass media and our increasing social interconnectedness, we are reminded more of our differences than our similarities. Religion’s power to unite is being wrongly realigned to a tool of separation.

Only a few hundred kilometres north of Wagah, the region of Kashmir remains in a state of flux. A purely geopolitical issue has become embroiled with a religious label of Hindu and Islamic dispute. In Burma, a nationalist movement headed by the Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, the self-proclaimed ‘Burmese Bin Laden,’ has been inciting hatred against the country’s minority Muslim population, and threatens to spread to other Buddhist nations. Whilst globally, Al-Qaeda has used religion to brainwash disillusioned Muslim men into killing themselves in the name of Allah. The rivalry and territorial tendencies that has historically underpinned human nature is driving these issues, but has been lost in translation and wrongly attributed to or wielded as inherently religious.

In the crisp Bhutanese air, the prayer flags weave down through the Paro valley, binding together all that they touch, revealing their pentuple of colours. Each represents its own sadhana, or purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky.  Himalayas (220)The last of these, the sky, reflects that which is beyond our everyday experience, and fuses the elements together, just as the monk sipping holy water, the woman praying at the feet of Hanuman’s large statue and the Sikh man bathing at the Golden Temple are bound together by faith.